By Jody Moylan
During the holidays, I ended up in Kosovo by mistake. Having arrived in Sofia for a week-long tour of the south Balkans (to take in Bulgaria, Macedonia and Greece) my well laid plans were scuppered by day two. I discovered that though my bus timetable was correct, I hadn’t factored in Orthodox Christmas, for which I’d landed in Skopje in Macedonia smack-bang in the middle of. With no Macedonian buses running to Greece for three days I was, essentially, stranded in Skopje, which I’d only intended to pass through. After a bit of head scratching I decided to make the best of it; celebrate ‘Christmas’ Orthodox style while also getting in a trip to Pristina — Kosovo’s capital — which was just two hours north.
After re-jigging my route forward I hopped into an old Kosovar minibus — the almost entirely Muslim country had no intention of slowing down for the Christian celebrations — and within a half-hour of departing Skopje a bus-full of locals, a Pole, an Irish, and two Israelis, were standing by the side of the road at the tight border control, in the freezing cold. The first thing you notice about Kosovo is the road you’re standing on. Because the road to Pristina, all the way from the border crossing, is magnificent. It’s a surprise to anyone who fully expects to be entering a country that can barely stand on its knees. What’s more, the impressive piece of infrastructure was completed under budget, and its opening last year was reportedly notable for its public ceremony; a physical symbol of a country constructing itself after its declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008.
Symbols of the past are never far away, however, and it was in this landscape that we were driving through, that the whole modern catastrophe began; at the Field of Blackbirds, a few miles west of Pristina, in June 1989. From his podium Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic brought nationalist rhetoric back to Yugoslavia, and promised future battles to regain the territory lost to the (Muslim) Ottoman Turks at the same site in 1389. Though tensions and NATO troops remain, there is no trace of menace on the streets of Pristina when we arrived. Like most cities in the Balkans there were lots of banged up vehicles milling about, pavements were rough and broken up, and everything green was overgrown.
When I spotted an early eighties Golf GTI sputtering smoke, with its weather-beaten driver sucking some kind of cigarette, the whole place began to remind me of Ireland thirty years ago. Likewise, like that place, unemployment and emigration are today an everyday epidemic in Kosovo. I got a tutorial on life as a Kosovar youth by third year computer engineering student, Begatim Lekaj, at the University of Pristina. His hopes, he told me, were the same as virtually all students in the country, in that he could only see a future abroad after graduating. All of his five siblings would do the same, leaving behind two parents in a rural village, and a country that has not, as yet, began to fully work. There could be some way to go, with Serbia leading a group of almost twenty nations in proclaiming Kosovo’s independence to be a reckless breach of international law. But they have many friends too, notably the EU and the USA, who are providing incentives for both Kosovo and Serbia to settle their differences.
Ultimately, while the chatty and good-humoured nature of a café waiter epitomized a general friendliness, there was a distinct feeling that everything has not been resolved here, and no good road in, or out, could disguise that.
Back in Skopje in Macedonia the next day I was invited to celebrate Orthodox Christmas with my host, and some friends, at his house in the middle of town. There was no turkey, but I did eat the traditional meal, called ‘posna’, and after had some Christmas ‘coin cake’. I found the coin, which means I should have good luck for the rest of the year (though I think it’s on the condition I convert!). I also learned to say ‘Hristos se rodi’ (Christ is born) in Macedonian, for which I got a congratulatory (sympathetic) cheer. The best part was at the end, though, when the new local radio station came on, banging out old English language pop classics, with cameos from our own Hothouse Flowers, and Chris de Burgh. With an internal chuckle I said that yes, we were very proud of ‘our boys’. It was a ‘Christmas’ to remember. Unexpected. And it taught me that whether your route through the region is planned out, or happens by mistake, you’ll always meet the people of the Balkans, and they’ll always make it a journey you won’t forget.
*Thanks to Dragan, Stefan, Maia and Dubravka